time out of joint: the covid-19 lockdown and j.g.ballard

Although Frieda Beckman’s 2013 article ‘Chronopolitics’ rightly identifies that J. G. Ballard repeatedly ‘releases time from the idea of a universally recognizable entity’, instead letting it reflect ‘a set of spaces […] which are ultimately dependent on politics’, and describes ‘the difficulties […] of locating agency in sptaio-temporal coordinates’ of contemporary capitalist structures, Friedman ultimately identifies ‘ambivalence’ in Ballard’s work, and suggests that the difficulties of locating political agency are weighed equally against the possibility of revolutionary action; in this essay, I hope to argue otherwise. By analysing two of Ballard’s shorter works – ‘The Enormous Space’ and Running Wild, which depict one man’s decision to never leave his suburban house again, and the collective decision by a group of upper middle-class children to murder their parents and escape their gated community, respectively – in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting lockdown, I hope to reframe Friedman’s conclusions.

Via Sadie Plant’s 1992 book The Most Radical Gesture, wherein she contrasts Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality with the more radical and optimistic possibilities delineated by Situationists International, I reject Baudrillard’s nihilistic conclusions regarding the possibility of action under late-capital. Instead, with support from Mark Fisher, Henry Lefebvre, and Paul Virilio, I argue that the system-shock of the COVID-19 lockdown has induced a societal “slowdown” that allows fissures in the logic of late-capitalist control mechanisms – particularly the ways in which time and space are structured – to become apparent; this is exemplified in ‘The Enormous Space’. Running Wild depicts a potential outcome of such discoveries made, in this story, during the children’s lifelong endurance of lockdown: having suffered ‘the complete subsumption of human agency into the political and economic systems that organize the Western world today’ via the unrelenting upper-middle-class routine they must uphold, the children’s revolt represents a conscious effort to exploit these fissures in capital-time; by subversively utilizing the monotonous repetition of the morning routine, the children are able to plan and synchronize their attacks before accelerating their way out of repression. I believe Ballard’s work offers an alternative reading of the COVID-19 lockdown to that pushed in mainstream media; being forced to stay at home creates a situation wherein the usual late-capitalist control mechanisms related to space and time are disrupted and exposed, inviting subjects to study their flaws, before potentially reigniting human agency with a revolutionary potential that could, and arguably should, lead to changes in the ways people live and work.

First, the pervasive systems of control must be defined, as must their effect on human agency. Ballard’s mid-to-later work, a periodization under which ‘The Enormous Space’ and Running Wild fall, ‘marks a shift from the collapse of social systems explored in Ballard’s earlier texts to a depiction of the implications of the success of social systems’, as Andrzej Gasiorek describes. The type of system in question is the ‘control society’, which Giles Deleuze suggests has replaced what Foucault described as a ‘disciplinary society’. In a control society ‘subjects are not moulded by means of institutions’, but rather ‘constantly modulated and manipulated by means of a complete infiltration of control on all levels of being’; as a result, ‘minds, emotions, and memories’ are unknowingly ‘integrated and manipulated by commercial and political interests’. ‘The Enormous Space’ and Running Wild stage the ways that human agency, or lack thereof, is built into the spatio-temporal dimensions of the control society. After Gerald Ballantyne, the protagonist of ‘The Enormous Space’, begins his self-imposed quarantine, he is shocked by ‘the lack of any response’ that ‘reflects the tranquil air of this London suburb’; it is a space characterised by enforced passivity. The leafy avenue remains ‘unruffled as ever’, and the mail sits ‘unopened on the mail stand’, whilst an ‘Air India 747 ambles across the sky, searching none too strenuously for London airport’. Ballard’s emphasis on negative constructions – ‘unopened’, ‘unruffled’, ‘none too strenuously’ – all emphasise the sedating effects of Croydon’s psychogeography. The ‘perfect universe’ of Pangbourne Village represents a similarly ‘civilized and eventless world’ that ‘denied any self-expression’ to the children, who existed ‘in a state closely kin to sensory deprivation’.

As such, I argue that Ballard’s work reflects a Marxist conviction that the experience of time is closely bound up with the organisation of labour; change in the organisation of the means of production entails change in how temporality is conceptualised. As work changes from the ‘streamlining effectiveness of linear time and uniform space of the factory’ to a more ‘distributed, spatial, immaterial and affective labour’, a new proletariat emerges; not the so-called working classes of the industrial era but, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, one that includes anyone ‘whose labour is exploited by capital, the entire cooperating multitude’. Therefore, in the Ballardian world, where all human needs ‘have been anticipated and the entire social mechanism has been calibrated to minimise friction and disturbance’, where ‘the suburbanisation of the soul’ has ‘overrun our planet like the plague’ and ‘humanity has become superfluous’, the question of whether resistance to a system in which labour and power are so widely distributed is possible in any form is powerfully evoked. Beckman rightly argues that the ‘effectual temporalities and the efficient architecture need to be sabotaged’ if human agency is to be recovered. However, the question that Beckman leaves unanswered is how, what Gregory Stephenson calls, ‘a sustained act of subversion’ against fundamental late-capitalist assumptions about bodies, time and space, should be undertaken.

Baudrillard provides a potential answer to this question. Both ‘The Enormous Space’ and Running Wild show an overlap with the Baudrillardian notion of a ‘hyperreality’, wherein ‘the whole system becomes weightless’, the world is ‘no longer anything but a giant simulacrum’, and images ‘bear no relation to any reality whatsoever’. Throughout ‘The Enormous Space’, Ballard deploys a hyperreal lexicon in his comparisons of everyday life to a set of dramatic and artificial gestures: ‘the convincing pose of a law-abiding suburbanite’, ‘those facades of conventional behaviour’, and that ‘over-worked hologram called reality’ wherein Ballantyne’s ex-wife Margaret is ‘one of a huge cast of repertory platers in that everlasting provincial melodrama called ordinary life’ that his own ‘team of scene-shifters’ have pulled back to create a new stage set’. In Running Wild, the narrator suggests that ‘the planned documentary [at Pangbourne] was the last straw’, because the children would have to continue ‘acting out their “happiness” under the eyes of their doting parents’.

However, as Sadie Plant identifies, this theory represents nothing more than a postmodern ‘manual for survival’ without any hope of political change. Much like Conrad Russell, who argues that any attempts at political ‘subversion have been outflanked’ by an ‘abstract postmodern temporality’, Baudrillard finds it futile to search for a reality underlying the pervasive simulacra. Plant acknowledges that some attempt is made through Baudrillard’s theory of symbolic exchange, but this quickly collapses into nihilism; his hyperreal world has consumed any possibility of subversion and represents ‘a complete rejection of any possibility of criticism’. Beckman asks whether ‘we can acknowledge the development and intensification’ of society into ‘hyperreality while still retaining some belief in the possibility for change’? I argue, like Plant, that there is: the ideas of the Situationist International. However, if their philosophy is to be taken up in full, I believe we must reframe the two central decisions at the heart of Ballard’s tales; they must no longer be understood as acts of madness ‘in a totally sane society’, where ‘madness is the only freedom’, but rather as conscious, politically motivated acts.

Situationist International’s suggestion that all aspects of contemporary life had been permeated by feelings of alienation, commodification, and a separation of subjects from their own experiences and desires – the concept of a ‘spectacle’, that ‘the only possible relation to the social world is that of […] the contemplative and passive spectator’ – prefigures postmodern ideas of a hyperreality. Plant suggests that the Situationists offer more radical suggestions of how to actively resist the oppression of the spectacle, pervasive alienation, and commodification. Beckman concurs, summarising as follows: ultimately, ‘the relation between capitalism [and] the domination of a political conception of time’, the ‘possibility for action in an all-encompassing system’, and, most importantly, ‘the system of belief required to transcend the spatio-temporal grid of everyday life’ are all usefully theorised by the Situationists. Specifically, I turn to the notion of the ‘situation’ itself. A situation is the deliberate, conscious, construction of an event that ‘intends to clarify desires that are otherwise repressed by functionalism and commerce’; the situation accommodates, what Ken Knabb describes as ‘a temporary field of activity favourable to those desires’ born out of ‘the décor and of themselves’.

Therefore, I argue that Ballantyne’s decision in ‘The Enormous Space’ should not be read as a “mad” decision or an impulsive post-traumatic act, but rather as the conscious, political creation of a situation. Ballantyne’s own emphasis on the ‘huge sense of freedom’ he achieves was, in his own words, ‘contingent on my acting upon that decision of a moment’; a momentary decision, but a conscious one. Similarly, the way he ‘tapped out [his] declaration of independence on the polished Formica’ alerts the reader to the brazenly political dimension to his decision. Constant Nieuwenhuys and Guy Debord argue that ‘the creation of a situation means the creation of a transitory microworld and – for a single moment in the life of a few – a play of events’; this ‘play of events’ interrupts the pervasive power of the spectacle by ‘discharging […] the unfamiliar and unpredictable into the daily and the mundane’. Ballard, and subsequently Ballantyne’s, emphasis on the workday morning, and how his situation is built out of and around the working day – beginning ‘soon after eight o’clock, as I stood by the front door, ready to drive to the office’ – and the decision to weaponize that same ‘front door’, represent the birth of a situation from within the mundane. As Ballantyne describes, his decision is so mundane that it remains ‘invisible to those it most offends’, despite the fact that it ‘runs counter to every social value’ the suburb embodies’.

Mark Fisher provides a framework for interpreting the ‘quest to the outer edges of the human’ that he identifies in Ballard’s writing, and that ‘follows a well-defined sequence, whose stages can be readily enumerated’. The first stage is ‘a letting go of the old identity’. As Fisher highlights, this is ‘given up easily’, and is embodied in the moment when Ballantyne ‘burns all his correspondence, his photographs, then his birth certificate and – in the most sacrilegious act of all […] his money’. However, the second stage of Fisher’s model is more important for my argument since it manifests itself temporally; this is ‘the loosening of the hold of civilisation’. Delineating this stage requires the invocation of another critic; in their description of the spectacle, the Situationists drew on many pre-existing Marxian theories of time and space, including those of Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre suggests that time and space alike are constructed in conjunction with political and economic demands; he identifies two temporal structures that define modern life. First, he defines the time born of natural bodies, seasons, birth, death, activity, rest, eating and sleeping: ‘cyclical temporality’. Second, is ‘linear temporality’; this is the time of modern urban life, of spatial and temporal uniformity, of civilisation, born out of the “rational” time of production. Linear temporality dissects cyclical time through its imposition of the repetitive motions of work and consumption.

‘The Enormous Space’ demonstrates the clashing of these two temporalities. When the telephone rings for the final time, Ballantyne suggests that he ‘can guess who is calling’, before listing: ‘Brenda, my secretary; the head of marketing, Dr Barnes; the personnel manager, Mr Austen (I have already been on sick-leave for three weeks); the dental receptionist (a tender root canal reminds me that I had an appointment yesterday); my wife’s solicitor, insisting that the first of the separation payments is due in six months’ time’. The rigid timeframes of work – measured ‘sick leave’, ‘separation payments’, the working days and working weeks of ‘secretaries’, ‘doctors’, and ‘solicitors’ – run contrary to the cyclical way of life to which Ballantyne forcibly returns. Furthermore, Ballantyne’s reportages to the diary that comprise the story also represent a break from rational time, and suggest a slowdown found outside the normal constraints of work. His first report is at ‘3p.m.’, with a two-hour gap before he reports again at ‘5p.m.’ Suddenly, the reader finds themselves at the end of ‘the first week’, then ‘a month has passed’, then ‘two months’, then ‘three months’; his cyclical lifestyle represents an ongoing, increasingly intense departure from linear time and a resulting slowdown in his perception of time. Ballantyne’s life, ‘emptied of the linear time of factory production’, facilitates the emergence of ‘a third temporality’. Fisher’s framework predicts the emergence of this third space, arguing that Ballard’s characters undertake ‘the exploration of the transcendental beyond’ that exists in ‘an intensive zone beyond – outside – standard perceptual thresholds’. This can be seen in Ballantyne’s claim that he is ‘confident that by then [he] will long since have moved into a different realm’, and that his situation marks ‘the junction between our small illusory world and another, larger, more real one’.

However, Fisher does little to describe the nature of this third space or the political possibilities that reside in it; the remainder of this essay is dedicated to finishing that task. Paul Virilio, ‘whose central concern is modernity as exemplified by speed, vectorization and mobility’, is conceptually useful here. Virilio argues, in language reminiscent of the Situationists, that modern technology ‘transforms the lived presence into a lived telepresence, where we are passive spectators, deprived of any sense of time – everything comes to us in “real time”’.  Yet, at the same time, Virilio insists that human existence is defined by a need for speed and motion: ‘able to reach the farthest extremities, [the modern subject is] not happy except in the narrow cell of his vehicle, strapped into this seat’, indeed ‘to stop, to park, are unpleasant operations’. As a result, ‘trapped in motionless motion’, humans ‘experience “polar inertia”’; ‘our subjectivity, while defined by movement, is erased by absolute speed’. However, ‘Virilio remains attached to the promise […] that something more cohesive and supportive can be created’. Most prominently, the promise of escape lies in ‘the technology of absolute speed […] interrupting itself’; crises such as the 1987 stock market crash – in the wake of which both these stories were written – and arguably the COVID-19 crisis ‘may actually remind us of our substance as accidental beings, bringing us back to our conscious selves’.

This is precisely what Ballantyne’s deviation from linear time represents; in experiencing a detachment from linear time and the resultant clash with his slowed-down cyclical temporality, Ballantyne not only becomes increasingly aware of the gaps, fissures, and inconsistencies in late-capital’s spatio-temporal control mechanisms, but even begins imagining alternative futures. Virilio notes how ‘the wearer of dark glasses believes like Alfred Jarry, that light is active and shadow is passiv,’ [emphasis Virilio’s]. Ballantyne’s newly found obsession with this ‘far richer realm’ and its components, namely ‘light, time, and space’, marks a newly raised consciousness in relation to the house that contains him; he moves from passive to spectator to actively thinking agent. His insistence on ‘thinking only of the essentials: the physics of the gyroscope, the flux of photons’ and ‘the architecture of very large structures’ not only marks his new-found internal agency – his ‘senses tuned to all wavelengths of the [previously] invisible’ – but also evokes the artistic technique ‘of blow-up that closely recalls Oldenburg’, and results in a world ‘no longer recognisable in its own image’.

In these newly recognized ‘immense rooms’, Ballantyne locates a ‘richness of interior space’, a ‘flooding’, ‘expanding’ of spatio-temporal ‘dimensions’ and, alongside it, alternative ways of imagining the world around him. The once mundane domestic spaces, now with their ‘endlessly carpeted floors’, come to represent radically unfamiliar, open, and deterritorializable spaces, filled with ‘endless’ possibilities. Ballantyne describes how the ‘unexpected gaps and intervals’ in the spatio-temporal fabric of the world he once inhabited have now revealed entirely new ‘worlds’ and ‘universes’, comparing himself to ‘Columbus’ and an ‘astronaut’ respectively. More importantly, however, is that ‘time and space have now rushed in to fill the vacuum’ left by the inconsistencies in linear time, and this third space represents a new and ‘unshakable logic at work’; where Ballantyne was once so pacified  by the spectacle of suburban life that he was deprived all agency, his self-quarantine repurposes the mundane spaces that surround him, and results in the total disruption, collapse, and replacement of the spatial and temporal means of late-capitalist, linear control.

The situation for the children of Pangbourne Village is different to that of Ballantyne in many ways; their isolation is forced not voluntary, takes place over a much longer period of time, and is designed to expose them to the effects of linear time, rather than provide a domestic escape from it. However, there are crucial similarities: in both cases, by withdrawing entirely to the architectural spaces that act as the mechanisms for the control society’s rigid and repetitive structuring of time and space, by inhabiting and experiencing solely those spaces, the children, like Ballantyne, experience a perceptual slowdown. As Ballard’s narrator reflects, ‘at Pangbourne Village […] time could run backward or forward’, ‘the residents had eliminated both past and future’; the children’s experience of agency-revoking linear time clashes with the ‘more brutal and real’ temporality ‘of the senses’, the cyclical time that their young minds and bodies yearn for as they progress through adolescence. As in ‘The Enormous Space’, this clashing of temporalities births a third space, and, with it, alternative visions of the world: two of the girls in the village, Gail and Annabel Reade, are described as having ‘kept elaborate secret journals’ which were ‘discovered in the panels behind their dressing-table mirrors’, which ‘throw no direct light’ on the murders, but ‘describe a richly imagined alternative to life in the estate’. Their journals ‘convey the impression of Pride and Prejudice with its missing pornographic passages restored’. By discovering ‘missing’ passages in a work of literature, and filling those spaces with their own desired versions of events, the girls show this world-building process in action.

More importantly, however, is that the children use their experience not just to envisage different ways of living, but to enact their revolutionary desires by crafting an escape plan in and around the gaps they discover in the monotonous Saturday morning routine of the Village; they hijack linear time, repurpose it to their own ends, and reclaim ‘some degree of agency and possibility for change’. On the morning of the attack, the children’s wake-up times, the first at ‘5.56 a.m.’, are chosen to get ahead of their parents; by identifying the fissures in the routine of linear time they are able to have their ‘preparations complete’ before ‘the first parents begin to rise between 7.00 and 7.15’. The attack similarly relies on the repetitiveness and reliability of the ‘guards’ changeover’; as well as depending on the regular hours of shift-work, the nature of the weekend shift means the guards are ‘often’ and predictably, ‘15 minutes late’. The plan also relies on their parents thinking only of the linear time of work; it relies on their total consumption by and obsession with the late-capital means of spatio-temporal control: Roger Garfield, a merchant banker, wanders mindlessly to his car, ignoring any signs or clues of the devastation unfolding around him, with his resulting corpse looking as if it ‘still assumed that he would be driven to his office in the City of London’. The attack likewise depends upon those adults that don’t work, and thus on the hetero-normative frameworks that linear time imposes on the domestic sphere as well as the working world; as Mrs Miller’s husband prepares for work, she ventures down to their home gym and, in her passivity under the spectacle, ‘fails to notice the one extra cable’ attached to her exercise bike that swiftly electrocutes her to death. Finally, it is worth noting that the attack is bookended by linear time: the children must complete their mission and escape before a regular delivery of wine is scheduled; when the delivery eventually arrives, the employee ‘discover[ed] the first of the bodies as [he] delivered a case of white burgundy to the Garfield house’. From its conception to its conclusion, the attack relies entirely on the repetitive, predictable, and tightly controlled mechanism of linear time, finding the fissures in its underlying logic, and exploiting them to revolutionary ends.

This essay does not mean to suggest that what remains of the COVID lockdown represents an opportunity to murder one’s parents. However, it does mean to suggest that, in agreement with Russel, ‘we need urgently to find a way of shattering fractured and depthless calculated time, this dead telepresent of living absence’; the COVID lockdown provides, for all people, but particularly those in the labour force, a rare crisis and, as such, a rare opportunity to disrupt the mechanisms of linear time, to meditate upon its structures, its flaws, its exploitative dimensions, and to seriously take up the task of formulating new ways of temporally and spatially organising the ways in which we live and work.

Primary

Ballard, J. G., ‘The Enomrous Space’, The Complete Short Stories, (London: Flamingo, 2002), 948-956

  • Running Wild, (London: Fourth Estate, 2014)

Secondary

Ballard, J.G., Super-Cannes, (London: Harper Perennial, 2000)

Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, (Detroit: University of Michigan Press, 1994)

Beckman, Frida, ‘Chronopolitics’, sympokē, 21.1-2, (2013), 271-289

Conrads, Ulrich, Programmes and Manifestos on Twentieth Century Architecture, (London/Cambridge, MA: Lund Humphries/MIT Press)

Deleuze, Giles, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October, 59, (1992), 3-7

Fisher, Mark, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction, (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018)

  • ‘Space, Time, Light, All The Essentials’, last accessed 11 May 2020, <k-punk.abstractdynamics.org>

Frosch, Stephen, Identity Crisis, (London: Macmillan, 1991)

Gasiorek, Andrej, J. G. Ballard, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri, Empire, (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000)

Knabb, Ken, Situationist International Anthology, (Berkley, BA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006)

Lash, Scott, Another Modernity, A Different Rationality, (Oxford / Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999)

Lefebvre, Henri, Critique of Everyday Life 2: Foundations for a Sociology of Everyday Life, trans. John Moore, (London: Verso, 2002)

  • ‘The Everyday and Everydayness’, Yale French Studies, 73, (1987), 7-11.

Plant, Sadie, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, (London: Routledge, 1992)

Roberts, John, Selected Errors: Writings on Art and Politics 1981-1990, (London: Pluto Press)

Russell, Conrad, ‘Against Dead Time’, Time & Society, 11.3, (2002), 193-208

Virilio, Paul, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Phil Beitchman, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991)

  • L’Intertie polaire, (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1994)
  • and Sylvère Lotringer, Pure War, trans. Mark Polizzotti, (New York: Semiotext(e)), 1997)

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